Dee, Alex, and Cy return to their discussion of asexual and aromantic coding, and dive deep into the works of Uta Isaki!
Date Recorded: February 1, 2022
Hosts: Dee, Alex, Cy
0:00:35 Mine-kun is Asexual and sex-repulsed vs non-sex-repulsed
0:18:06 Ace stereotypes
0:20:55 Is Love the Answer?
0:22:58 Allosexual social and societal pressure
0:31:56 Ishi, mentorship, and aromantic relationships
0:35:26 Ume and sex repulsion for heteroromantic men
0:45:33 Asexuality as an orientation vs identity
0:52:00 Hopes for future ace/aro rep in media
DEE: Hello and welcome to Chatty AF: The Anime Feminist Podcast. I’m Dee, one of the managing editors at AniFem. And this is part 2 of our episode about asexual and aromantic representation in Japanese media.
I will be joined on this episode by Cy and Alex. And if you would like to hear about all the places you can find us online, check out Part 1. This part would be confusing without listening to Part 1 anyway.
So, the next two titles we wanted to talk about are actually our last two titles and the most recent ones. They are by the same mangaka, Uta Isaki, who is uncertain of where they lie on the sexuality and romantic spectrum but have talked in author’s notes and stuff about feeling like they might be ace, they might be aromantic. They said their gender— I’m using they/them pronouns, by the way, because they’ve said they feel like their gender is “also obscure”… was the wording in the author’s note.
They do not explicitly identify as ace or aro, so I’m not going to say they are that, but there has certainly been an exploration leaning that direction for them as a creator. So, much like Kamatani, I think to an extent you can talk about this in an “own voices” sort of situation, regardless of whatever labels Isaki ends up settling on for themself that feel right.
So, the first title is a one-shot that you actually can buy in the US, thanks to Irodori Comics. (All of these titles are available in English, licensed readily pretty much everywhere, for folks at home.) This is a short story called Mine-kun Is Asexual. And this is an interesting one on this list because it is told almost entirely from the perspective of Murai, who is his short-lived girlfriend, who is herself alloromantic allosexual. So, it comes from that perspective, but the boy she is dating, Mine-kun (or young man; they’re in college), is an asexual character.
So, Cy, I know this is one you really wanted to talk about, so I would love for you to take point on this if you’d like.
CY: Yeah, so, Mine-kun Is Asexual was the first time I encountered (like, I’m sure, with a lot of other people) Isaki Uta’s work. And I have really strong feelings about it because it was the first time that I ever saw a cis male character be labeled two things, and that was biromantic, because it is explicitly said that Mine-kun is biromantic, and also asexual and aromantic.
Well, and I’m saying the “aromantic.” That’s more of a reading because Mine-kun does obviously date someone. But it’s also made explicit that Mine-kun is like… kissing and sex, that kind of physical PDA, ranging to physical intimacy, is kind of off… off the… [Chuckles] off the charts. Not something that he’s interested in. And so, when I read this—
DEE: Sorry. Sorry, sorry, I have to take a sec. So, are you equating that to romantic gestures, then? We talked earlier about how the concept of “romantic” is sort of open to interpretation, so I just want to kind of get a read for where you stand on that.
CY: I think, for me, being aromantic, I am equating it to romantic. And that’s not explicit, but as a reader, that’s kind of what I’m equating it to, is Mine-kun wanting this romantic relationship that’s not romantic, if that makes sense. And by that, what I mean is like a boyfriend–girlfriend-labeled relationship that has this really intense care and bond but isn’t romantic in the way of an alloromantic relationship.
And to clarify, that is much more of me reading that into it, because the things that are very much so on the table are “Mine-kun is asexual” and “Mine-kun is biromantic.” But I think there’s something of a conflation that happens of, like, he’s biromantic and says, like, “Okay, I am attracted to both men and women, but I have no interest in sexual intimacy,” but also does these things that I think might be, maybe by an alloromantic reader, perceived as more friendship.
And this is where maybe I check myself on… That might be my own views of alloromanticism and what we expect from romantic relationships kind of blurring that, as well.
ALEX: And I think a lot of the perception of… Because we perceive all of his actions through the character who does want that more traditional romantic and sexual relationship, that possibly also colors the way that he comes across. But I think I know what you… Yeah, he doesn’t want sexual intimacy, but he also doesn’t want to hold hands or do any of that kind of stuff. He just kind of wants to hang out, God bless him. And to the main character, that feels like a lack of intimacy of any kind, whereas… I don’t know. I was like, “I would just hang out!” [Laughs]
CY: I suppose I also see the alloromantic reading, as well, because there is a part where Mine-kun says, like, “I could probably do a kiss, but it isn’t something I want.” And I will say, I tend to associate kissing with a romantic thing and not a sexual thing.
ALEX: That’s an interesting, again, philosophical conversation to have, is: where we draw the line between what is a romantic act and a sexual act, because they’re so often bundled together.
DEE: Well, and also, I think that’s… I am listening and learning because, as I have mentioned offline, I’m not allowed to go down the semantic hole in this episode. We talked about this offline.
DEE: I’m not doing this! I become less and less certain that anybody knows what romance is! So I’ve become less and less certain how to define it, because it seems like everybody has a very different idea.
I also think it is… I think, much like gender, it is very culturally rooted, and I think it has become so— Socially speaking, again, I think that there is a difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction, is the way people experience those things. But I also think that, as a society, they are so intertwined that it becomes increasingly difficult to pull them apart.
Because in some cultures kissing is not a sexual act. You will kiss a family member, and it wouldn’t even necessarily be considered romantic. And it’s also very contextual. But in other cultures, parts of the US, and also, I would say, Japan, there’s less physical contact in those countries. So, for Mine, trying to enter into a relationship with somebody, I could see him feeling like even something like holding hands with somebody of the opposite gender is intricately an act of, like, the first step towards a sexual relationship. Does that make sense?
CY: That does. That does. And I really appreciate that because something you just said— Like I said, this is partially me having to check myself because I do think romance and sex, even for me as someone who’s very… I don’t want to say I’m divorced from sex, because I’m asexual but I’m not sex-repulsed, not in the least. I just don’t personally engage in sex. I don’t really see the— [Laughs] I feel like I was about to say I don’t really see the need! I don’t for myself.
ALEX: It’s not one of your hobbies.
CY: Yeah, it’s not a hobby. I don’t like chocolate and I don’t like sex, without that emotional bond. That changes things. But I do think there’s this conflation, because I said all of that and now I’m like, “Do I actually know what romance is?” And I think I do, but I also think I don’t, because I think it’s become so conflated.
DEE: And maybe it is. It’s one of those things where it’s different in the context of the individual person, which is why it is a word that becomes harder and harder to define, because different people… I mean, it’s that same idea of, like, you might be out having fun with somebody and you think that you’re having a friendly conversation and they think you’re flirting with them, right? Because different people have different levels of what is or isn’t a romantic overture.
So, I think it starts to get sort of tangly there with… And with… Oh, I don’t like talking about myself, but yeah, fine, fuck it, let’s go.
Something with Mine-kun is that sense of… You know, in high school, when people were kind of getting into figuring out sexuality but it wasn’t necessarily expected, I was a lot more physically touchy, close with my friends because it wasn’t necessarily linked to sexuality in the way that it became when I got to college. And I had to really reconfigure some barriers and navigate those… And then suddenly physical contact that I used to like, I started to become kind of wary of because it was like, “Oh shit, what if this is considered like the first step towards a sexual relationship? What if this is considered…?” What’s the word I’m looking for?
ALEX: The connotations change, and the expectations around it. You don’t want to…
DEE: I don’t want to give them the wrong idea and then suddenly something that used to be comfortable is now uncomfortable for me, because I am sex-repulsed. I actively dislike it. We watched porn for funsies in college a couple of times, and I actually got nauseous. I did not care for that.
ALEX: Oh, no!
DEE: I can do erotica. I can do a certain level of erotica if it’s very focused on character relationships and emotions. Yep, I can get into that. No problem. A tasteful sex scene, no problem. The second it gets explicit, I’m outie!
And again, not to say there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone out there who likes porn, who likes sex, good for you! Congratulations! I do not.
So, that started to complicate [my] relationships. So, when I see Mine sort of balking at the cuddles and the kissing, I guess, for me, I was able to kind of map that on to that concern of “I told her at the beginning that nothing’s gonna happen. Does she think I’m leading her on? I should probably stop her now,” and that difficulty of being an asexual person in a relationship with an allosexual person.
CY: It’s hard! [Chuckles] It’s hard!
DEE: It hit me very hard with Mine-kun, because I do get the sense (and you get this from Is Love the Answer? as well, which we’ll talk about in a minute) … I get the sense he is sex-repulsed. He really does not want to do it. It’s not just no interest; like, actively would dislike it. So that’s where I am. [Chuckles]
CY: But I think that’s fair, because I think we have evidence that he is sex-repulsed because of how the story ends, right? Because I remember the first time I read this, y’all, I was anxious as the page count got up, because you don’t really know how things are going to end when Murai kind of… she kind of pushes for the kind of sexual overtone. And I think, for me… I will say, as a Japanese speaker, what kind of threw me was she says “embrace,” and “embrace” in Japanese kinda has a little bit of a different meaning. “Embrace” can often be used in a sexual context, and I do remember when I read it being like, “Oh, no. Oh, no.” And thankfully, it doesn’t go there.
But I think your reading of it and your feelings are really valid, and I really appreciate the perspective because I think me being a not-sex-repulsed asexual who also… I am someone who telegraphs a lot of my sexuality through kink, and so, I’m very much so someone who’s not sex-repulsed. And it’s not that I can’t understand that perspective; it’s just a perspective I haven’t lived. And I think that’s really valuable when it comes to Mine-kun Is Asexual, because it being telegraphed through Murai and through this kind of fraught relationship…
DEE: Mm-hm. Because Murai says she’s fine with it but she still expects them to eventually have a sexual relationship. And that’s eventually… Or maybe even not expect, but she wants it, right? Even if she’s not expecting it from him, it’s still something she desires. So, it becomes a point of conflict.
ALEX: I mean, I read this basically back-to-back with Is Love the Answer? in about 48 hours. I mean, we’ll get to that in a minute, but I see them in conversation with each other in a really interesting way. But certainly Mine-kun is interesting to me, even just structurally, because I sort of got to the end and went, “Oh, that just kinda ended,” and was initially disappointed.
CY: [crosstalk] [Chuckles] Sure did.
ALEX: And then kinda had the thought, “Oh, this doesn’t really feel like a constructed narrative. It kind of feels like a memory. It feels like an anecdote of someone going, ‘Oh, yeah, I had this relationship in college. Didn’t really work out. This is kinda what happened.’” Because, you know, real life doesn’t often have nice payoff and pacing and all that kind of stuff!
And I think there’s definitely an argument to be made that having it from the perspective of a non-ace character looking at the ace character, it changed the dynamic, and there’s a certain conversation to be had where you would say, “That’s a very outdated kind of method. The sympathy and the empathy and the perspective should be anchored in the ace—in the non-normative character, rather than them having an experience that this other person learns from.”
I think that is fair, but I also think, I don’t know, this one… It weirdly worked because, again, you’re looking at Mine-kun through the perspective of Murai, but… I don’t know. It’s a complicated one, and it’s a very bittersweet one, as well. I think that the heartbreak of the end of it is contextualized differently because of who the protagonist in the story is.
But I don’t know, I kind of find that interesting because as bittersweet as it is and as much as it may be considered in a certain context kind of not-great representation, this is a real thing that happens in lots of relationships, especially in that new-adulthood kind of thing where you are still figuring out what you want and you may go barreling into a relationship with certain expectations.
And on a representation standpoint, it was kind of… I mean, not nice. “Nice” is the wrong word, but it was kinda nice to see the flip of the norm where it’s the girl or the woman in the M/F relationship who’s the more sexually aggressive, pushy one, because usually the expectation is that’s going to be flipped and, like you said before, Dee, of course women are chaste and neutral about sex and men really want it. That was kind of cool, to see that flipped around, because, again, it will happen all the time in real life but it’s not necessarily the pattern that media likes to fall into.
So, I totally agree this is a complicated one, kind of because it’s so realistic, in a weird way, because it speaks so much to what feels like a very messy, real experience that somebody had and doesn’t fit quite nicely into what we expect from a story and thus does not fit quite nicely into what we think of as a good queer storytelling whatever-whatever.
So, I think that if I had just read it on its own, I would have been kind of like, “Ah. Well, all right.” But because I immediately followed it up with a different work from the same author, seeing them explore similar ideas differently, I was like, “Oh, okay, this is kind of part one in a journey that we’re going on.” It’s almost like they exist together in an anthology of experiences. I don’t know, what do you think?
CY: It helps that Uta Isaki didn’t write the next one during one of the strongest typhoons that hit Japan that year! [Chuckles] Maybe they were able to just explore a little bit deeper because the power wasn’t going out. Feel bad for them in that afterword.
But I do think you’re right, because I still really hold this one really dear to my heart but I also had a lot of trouble revisiting it, because I was like, “Oof! Been there! This hurts a lot. This is…”
DEE: It’s kind of— Yeah.
CY: It’s a little too personal!
DEE: It’s sort of a devastating one. It is nice that there’s a little postscript that’s like, “Oh, by the way, Mine-kun met another ace person and now they’re in a relationship, and he’s quite happy with his boyfriend and they go to Marvel movies and play video games together.” And I’m like, oh, thank God!
CY: Can we talk about how Murai kept his bread container, though? [Clicks tongue] Mm…
ALEX: [Laughs] Which, again, feels like such a real detail from something that would have happened in a person’s life, just like, “Ah, yeah, I broke up with this guy. I’ve still got his bread container, though. Can’t give that back.”
DEE: Yeah, for folks at home, at the end when Mine is kind of realizing their relationship is over and he’s like, “Oh, I left some of my DVDs over there and also my bread container. I hope she gives them back.” And then he kind of has a moment where he’s like, “Oh, I think I actually did love her,” and then kind of shakes himself and moves on. And thankfully, he has a happy ending. But there’s a little postscript that’s like, “She gave back the movies. But she kept the bread container.” [Laughs]
CY: Rude. [Chuckles] It’s just like… Mm.
DEE: Oh, that’s the kind of thing you throw— God, I have Tupperware in my house that I’ve had for like a year because somebody loaned it to me and I just keep forgetting to give it back. And when it’s a breakup, there’s a certain moment where it’s like, “Well, I can’t give this back to them now.”
ALEX: This is my Tupperware now. [Chuckles]
DEE: He got the movies back, so that’s good.
ALEX: That is the most important thing.
I will say, I mean, talking about ace coding and perhaps ace stereotype, I did have a moment reading it where I was like, “Oh, okay, so he’s really into movies and he’s more into fiction than real relationships. That’s kind of a stereotype.” And then I thought about it and I was like, “Yes, it is, but this has also literally happened to me before.” So maybe just looking at it through that lens is not quite 100% right to be looking at. But…
DEE: I mean, there is kind of the running joke that because ace/aro people aren’t constantly busy in relationships, they have a lot more time to devote to their hobbies.
CY: Oh, no.
ALEX: Especially the thing of, like…
DEE: I mean, I have— I have— Oh, go ahead.
ALEX: Just especially the thing of he invites her over to watch a movie and she’s like, “Ooh, is he inviting me over to ‘watch a movie’?” but he’s literally just inviting her over to watch a movie. Which I have done! That has happened to me!
DEE: Are we going to literally Netflix and chill or…?
CY: Hold up a second. Is “Netflix and chill” sexual?
ALEX: Yeah! Apparently. [Chuckles]
DEE: Yeah. Yeah. It was like—
ALEX: [crosstalk] It’s like, “Well, yeah, come over. We’ll watch Netflix.” And… you know.
CY: Oh, no!
DEE: It’s code for “Let’s fuck.” Yeah.
CY: No! If you invite me over for Netflix, we watching Netflix!
DEE: We’re gonna Netflix and chill!
ALEX: Right! [Chuckles] I’m like, “Stop kissing on me. I need to pay attention to this part. It’s really important.”
CY: Right! I want to see Wednesday Addams be Wednesday Addams!
DEE: Yeah! “This is a good show! What are you doing?”
CY: I feel like it would be so much easier… To all the alloromantics in the world, if you want to have sex, please just say that. Don’t come up with a euphemism. That’s very confusing.
CY: Because if you say “Netflix and chill,” I’m going to Dollar Tree and I’m buying a bunch of $1.25 candy for us to share during this Netflix session.
ALEX: We are getting blankets, we are getting popcorn, we are settling in, got the sound system on. I’m not wearing lingerie; I’m wearing my comfiest pants and my hoodie, and we are settling in for the evening.
DEE: That sounds like a great evening!
ALEX: So, I hope Mine-kun has that in his new relationship that he gets at the endgame of the story. And I hope that our main girly gets what she wanted, as well. And I guess R.I.P. to her friend, the character that the postscript was like, “Oh, this girl was actually a lesbian and was really into Murai. But that didn’t work out.”
DEE: I do love that fleeting nature of Mine-kun, where it’s like, yeah, they were in college, and none of the things that they felt at that moment… it didn’t last, and that’s fine. And they’ve moved on and they’re all happy now. They all found the relationships that they needed to find, that worked for them. So, it was nice to have that little postscript. And again, it is very true, very grounded, I think, in that kind of messy reality of college.
Which, speaking of, is a segue if I ever heard one into Isaki’s second work featuring asexual and aromantic characters: Is Love the Answer? This just came out and is one of the reasons why the podcast is happening now, because I was waiting for this volume to drop so we could talk about it.
This is a much more polished story than Mine-kun, I would say. And all three of us have read it, which is terrific, so we can all talk about it. Just as a note for folks at home, there are three characters in this story who fall in the ace/aro spectrum.
Chika is the main character. She currently identifies as ace-aro, although the story kind of pushes on the idea of, like, she might change that; that’s what fits right now. She’s still kind of figuring herself out, and that’s A-okay. And we’re going to talk about that later, as well.
There’s also Professor Ishii, who is an older character. They— I’m gonna say “they.” I don’t know if the story ever actually uses pronouns for them, but they identify as X-gender in the character bios at the end. They are, I believe, also asexual and aromantic. They are not sex-repulsed. Chika is.
And then there’s also Ume-chan, or Ume-chan-senpai if you want to use Chika’s full name for him. He is another character in the story. He is asexual but not aromantic and is also sex-repulsed, which becomes a point of trauma in the later chapters. Oh, we’re going to talk about Ume!
Just overall thoughts on this one, guys, I was absolutely delighted to find a series that not only starred an ace character but also had a variety of ace/aro characters to give you that sense of “This is a very individual experience and you can’t say that everyone who is ace or aro or both experiences this exact set of feelings.” You know what I mean?
CY: Oh, yeah. I cried my way…
ALEX: [crosstalk] For sure.
ALEX: You cry first this time. [Corrects self] You go first.
CY: Oh, I cried my way through it. I cried my way through it, because… [Sighs] So, growing up… And I know people who have listened to the podcast before know that I am AFAB.
Growing up with Black womanhood is kind of like nothing else, because, especially in North America, especially in America, you’re so divorced, especially if you’re a fat Black woman, which at one point in my life I was… If you’re a fat Black woman, whether you’re cis… If you’re AFAB, if you’re marginalized within that Blackness, you’re not allowed to be sexual. You’re not allowed to be attractive. So you spend a lot of your life trying desperately, so desperately to fit this expectation to be attractive and to be sexual, and that was a lot of my life.
And so, reading this really hit home to… It made me reflect because a lot of my life has been spinning my wheels and trying to fit into what society does, to do what we’re supposed to, to want to get married, to want to have a relationship, to want these things. And there are things I want. I would like a relationship. I would like that companionship, but I don’t want to get married and I don’t want kids and I don’t want these other hallmarks.
And Chika’s really going through that, starts her story— And I should say this manga does have a content warning for sexual assault. It’s on the table-of-contents page. You know, Chika starts the story with a pretty strong inciting incident but is still asexual, inclusive and exclusive of that, and it was this really emotional trajectory that really got to me because it made me feel human. And I have not often felt human as someone… less so… I feel more human with my asexuality than I do with my aromanticism. I still really struggle to feel like I’m a person sometimes because of society’s expectations around that, and this kind of made me feel like myself, and that was really nice.
DEE: That’s terrific. I’m really glad you had that experience with this series. And Chika talks about that too, right? And we see this imagery in Our Dreams at Dusk as well, but she talks about, in the early chapters, feeling like an alien, right? Like that sense of not feeling human because everyone around her is like, “Well, surely you want to fall in love and then have sex with that person,” or the opposite, like, “Oh, well, I mean, once you kiss them, then you’ll just naturally fall in love, because those two things go hand in hand and everybody wants that, right?”
The series really digs deep into that sense of alienation that is not… For Chika, it’s not like she’s getting bullied at school. A lot of it is internalized or very subtle. But I think it does a really good job of showing how that can eat away at you and make you feel isolated even if you technically have friends and get along with people around you. You know?
ALEX: That’s true. I mean, some of the most harrowing parts are when her friends are being kind of overly supportive and trying to hook her up with guys and telling her, “Don’t worry! You’ll find someone new!” And she’s like, “I just don’t want this, and I don’t know how to communicate it.”
So it’s that death-from-a-thousand-cuts kind of isolation of just not feeling in tune with what is supposedly normal. And in fact that phrase “normal” is something she comes back to multiple times throughout, even in terms of things like the TV shows that she would watch, that her friends at school were like, “Oh, well, it’s not normal to like that at this age, so you’re doing it wrong.” And so she’s trying to fit herself into this mold where she just doesn’t.
CY: I think of that sequence where her parents ask her, “What do you want for your birthday?” and she’s like, “A Wii.” And she says it and follows it up with “That’s what everyone else wants.” And she says, “A Wii.” She doesn’t say, “I want a Wii and…” I don’t know why Bayonetta was the first game that came to mind because a child should not play Bayonetta, but “I want a Wii and Bayonetta 2!” And she just says, “A Wii,” because she’s just trying so hard to fit in. And that’s real. That’s a real feel. And it hurts—
ALEX: I resonated with that a lot. And yeah, I agree with you, Cy. It’s a painful one.
I just… I don’t know. I think this is just the human condition to a certain extent. But certainly, looking back on my… especially in my early teens, I just felt like I was trying to construct myself out of papier-mâché, trying to just be like, “All right, well, what am I supposed to be doing? What are the people around me doing? I guess this is what I should do. I guess this is what I should like. I guess this is how I should talk about boys and love and stuff, I suppose.”
It’s just an exercise in mimicry and that feeling of, like, everyone else has a script and you’ve somehow missed yours or yours has pages missing and you’re just kind of trying to do bad improv through your life as a human, and not knowing until you’re much older why that was.
Which, again, that sense of trying to put yourself together from different influences… I think it’s something everyone goes through, but certainly it hits hard for a queer experience in a different way that’s always really interesting to see explored in different fictional works.
DEE: Yeah, yeah, and especially, I think, a queer experience that is, in a lot of ways, not very well known. Right? Because I think there’s some moments in the story where people are like… Oh, and I think this happens in I Want to Be a Wall, as well. They’re like, “Oh, well, then you must just be gay. Oh, you don’t like sex with dudes? Okay, well, then you’re just gay. So, just go have sex with women. That’s fine.” And it’s like, no, I don’t want to have sex with anybody!
And, you know, that sense of that revelatory (I think I said that right) moment when she takes the test and finds the word “asexual” and finds the word “aromantic” and is like, “Oh my God! There’s a word for this!” That moment hit very hard, because… I mean, none of us are young ‘uns, so we probably all can remember the moment when we first heard that word, and we were probably… Were you guys also adults when you became aware of what asexuality was?
CY: I was 21. Yeah. So I was definitely an adult. Yeah.
ALEX: Yeah, I was in my early 20s and several years deep into a sexual relationship, so that was an interesting experience to go, “Ah! Ah, no.” [Chuckles]
DEE: “Ah, that’s why this is off. Huh.”
ALEX: “Ah! Okay, okay, interesting.”
Oh my God. Okay, so this is— Again, tiny anecdote that kind of ties in is that I had been… I specifically remember this. I was driving in a car with a friend, and we followed each other on Tumblr because that was the thing that you were doing back then. And my friend made a comment. They were like, “You sure do reblog a lot of comics and information slides and stuff about asexuality.” And I was like, “I just think it’s really interesting.” And then, like, the X-Files theme music started playing in the back of my brain.
ALEX: I was like, “Wait a second. What if this is interesting to me personally and not just conceptually?” And then I went, “Ah, beans! Oh, no.” [Laughs] Which is kind of also what happened with the gender. But isn’t that funny how these things often go together? Which is also something Chika talks about, which I thought was really interesting.
But yeah, the ideas can be swirling around you but you can have this notion of, like, “Well, that can’t be me, though, right? Because I’m ordinary, surely.” Which, again, that notion of ordinariness, of normalness, is something that this manga really pushes back against in a way that I really love.
CY: I was gonna say, yeah, she talks about it in terms of feeling genderless while still feeling aligned with being a woman but just never having questioned it and how that ties in. So, yeah, I do think it is kind of funny how all these things kind of come together. I’ve never felt more seen than when she took that test and it was like, “You’re asexual,” and I was like, “Oh! I remember that moment,” because it was also a Tumblr moment.
ALEX: God bless Tumblr. Has its issues, but it also has its highlights, for sure. [Chuckles]
DEE: I actually had a friend bring up the word as an aside in a conversation at a bar. And I was like, “Huh.” And then I, being me, ruminated on it for another three years before I went, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s me.”
ALEX: Yeah, gotta let these things mull over.
DEE: Much like Chika, I like to be certain words mean things and… [Chuckles] Which, I actually really… One of— Should we talk about the other characters first before we get into broader themes?
CY: I think we should. I think we should, because they’re all going to kind of tie together.
DEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, Ishii is the professor who’s older and kind of is just chill and has everything figured out and…
CY: And is gender goals.
DEE: And is gender goals. Yes, very much so. Really excellent androgynous look going on in the comic, as well. Has a husband who travels a lot, and they’ve just been best friends forever and at one point were just like, “Hey, why don’t we just get married so that if one of us gets sick or hurt or something, we have somebody who can visit us in the hospital?”
ALEX: I love that so much. I love that little relationship.
CY: [crosstalk] I was gonna say, I think you’re forgetting that they did because Ishii’s husband started vomiting blood! [Chuckles]
DEE: God, that’s right! He gets… They don’t ever say what. I assume it was an ulcer or something, but he gets super sick and nobody could visit him in the hospital, and afterwards they were like, “Hey, how about we get married so that never happens again?”
CY: Yeah. [Chuckles]
ALEX: The practicality. You love it.
DEE: And they seem to have a very… I mean, they seem to have a very… you know, I’m gonna say “loving,” not in a romantic sense necessarily, but they seem to have a very loving and supportive relationship. They clearly care about each other.
And Ishii is that queer adult we all wish we had in our lives, right? The one who seems like they kind of got it figured out and you’re like, “I can be that someday. That’s obtainable.” So, I think it’s good to have Ishii in the story as kind of a grounding point for the college kids who are very much still kind of figuring their stuff out.
CY: Yeah, I really like Professor Ishii because I think— It’s interesting because I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Our Dreams at Dusk, because you have the same situation of this kind of shared living space, this kind of shared community space. And Professor Ishii is just great because this really is someone that I know I would have benefited from having, and maybe I did have and I just didn’t know. But from the moment they come into the manga, you’re like, “Oh, like Allstate, I’m in good hands. I’m gonna be secure. I’m gonna be taken care of.”
They’re just a great character. They are an excellent portrayal of a loving relationship that is not romantic or sexual, with someone they care about very powerfully. Just great.
DEE: Married their best friend. I mean, isn’t that everyone’s dream?
ALEX: Married their best friend! That’s so… Ah! And yeah, I love a good queer mentor character, especially in something that is quite framed as a coming-of-age story. Because, yeah, again, it adds that sense of futurity, like “Oh, I can be like this as an adult. This is not something that’s a fleeting phase or something I’m gonna grow out of. One day I can be that person.”
And yeah, I always find it very heartening as well because I never had that as a teenager. But working as a teacher, teaching undergraduates, I kind of… not to the same extent, but I have kind of been that person for a couple of my students, and I always… I play it real cool in the classroom, and then I go home and I’m like, “Oh my God!” [Babbles excitedly] I get real— I get real— You know, it makes me all gooey, [chuckles] because it’s such an important role to have.
DEE: Mm-hm. No, it really is. Yeah.
ALEX: I would love to be the cool mentor character in one of these coming-of-age stories! [Chuckles]
DEE: It sounds like you’re on your way there. So, keep it up. Keep up the good work at uni.
ALEX: [crosstalk] It makes my heart full.
DEE: No, it’s great.
ALEX: On the other hand, of course, we have Ume, who is also the best.
DEE: Oh, Ume, another one-two punch of toxic masculinity and queerphobia. Hi, Ume. How are you, bud?
How’s everyone feeling about Ume?
CY: Really love him. I like that he is… I think there’s something to be said about a character that is kind of just mean. [Chuckles] He’s just kind of mean to start.
DEE: Yeah, but not in a cruel or abusive way. He’s just kind of a rude, what, 21-year-old? I’m not sure exactly how old he’s supposed to be, but he’s probably a junior in college or something like that.
CY: I was gonna say, I took him to be about 20, like, an adult but… Yeah, and I just like that he’s not rude in a bullying way; he’s just also got his own stuff going on. And he’s just like, “Yo, you took the room I was going to stay in, because I wanted to be there because the cat’s there! And I don’t like you now.”
DEE: What a mood. I feel that.
CY: [crosstalk] We got beef.
DEE: You stole The Cat Room from me, and now I’ll never forgive you.
ALEX: These are priorities. Yeah, I do like how blunt [chuckles] that he is, especially in contrast to the very mellow, wise kind of vision that the professor is. He’s like, yeah, complete other type of personality. So you get a beautiful spectrum of representation there, as well as both of them being really funny when they interact.
CY: I like that any time that Chika talks to him, he’s like, “You doing some chores.”
CY: “I gotta weed. I gotta weed the yard, so that’s you. Then you can talk to me.” [Laughs] Just, like, this…! He’s so mean!
DEE: It’s like where Ishii wants to be a mentor, Ume does not. He’s not actually interested in being the queer mentor character.
CY: Super not interested.
DEE: He’s like, “Go read a book. Figure it out. I don’t want that to be my role in your life.” Although, they do develop a friendship and a closeness by the end of it that I quite liked.
CY: I liked it a lot.
DEE: I also think Ume’s story is one that we don’t see very often and is very important, as far as queer narratives, in that he is a cis man who is… I believe he describes himself as heteroromantic (like, he likes girls), but he is also a sex-repulsed asexual. And he struggles with that in a way that is very different from Chika, because of the expectations around guys being the person who takes the lead in sexual encounters and who wants to have sex and is horny all the time.
And he goes through a lot of trauma that is, I mean, socially inflicted, I guess is how I would describe it? Because it’s not like anyone’s forcing him into relationships, but he feels like he has to do these things, and so he just keeps forcing himself into sexual relationships and getting physically ill over it and then unintentionally hurting the other person who has no idea why any of this is going on.
And I think that also… That also hit for me! Because if you don’t realize that you’re ace and you’re trying to have an allo relationship, things can get messy, both for you and your partner who also has no— It’s like, “Why? What am I doing wrong?” So, I thought Ume’s story was very important to have and also hit pretty hard there, like a lot of Isaki’s work does!
CY: It feels like so much of this volume, this really complete, longer story, is in kind of a conversation with Mine-kun Is Asexual, especially with Ume because I feel kinda like Mine-kun walked so Isaki Uta could write Ume to fly, because Ume is… he’s very open. There’s that scene where he basically… I don’t think you see him vomit, but it’s implied that it’s a close thing that he’s about to throw up after he has sex.
And it is really powerful to see that because, one, there’s not a lot of cis male rep for asexuality; but also, yeah, men are positioned in Japanese society the same way they are positioned in North American society, the same way they’re positioned in Australian society, I’m going to presume, which is that men are… you know, they got the sexual prowess and they know what they’re doing.
And that’s really harmful because some men just probably don’t want to have sex, and it’s very— Sex is a very frightening thing (A) when it is a new concept that you’re engaging with with your body, but also when you don’t want to have it. It’s very, very frightening.
And so, I really appreciated that perspective of having a cis guy talk about, like, “I was just trying to figure it out” and having to reckon with the fact of, yeah, you probably hurt a lot of people, but also, what does it say that society gives that as your only answer? Like the only solution to this is that you have to just literally fuck around and find out.
DEE: Like, he feels like he has to force himself to keep doing this because he’s like, “This is what I’m supposed to be like,” where, at the very least, Chika has— [wryly] I say this as if it’s a good thing. The one situation where sex-shaming women works out is when you’re asexual, because you’re like, “Oh, right, I’m not supposed to want sex. It’s fine!”
DEE: But, you know, Chika doesn’t have that necessarily as much. There’s social pressure but not as much, because it’s more like, “Oh, you’ll fall in love, and then you’ll make love,” whereas Ume feels like…
Well, then, I think there’s also that element of Ume does have romantic attraction to people. He’s like, “I do like them. I do want to spend time with them. I do want to do all this stuff. So, why not this other step? Why is this step not okay for me?” And so I think that’s an additional element of confusion that he goes through.
And the series doesn’t dwell on it. It’s relatively brief and constrained, and the pacing in this series is quite good. But I think it touches on those conflicts in a way that is very real and sympathetic to the character.
CY: And very human. It’s very human. Because my biggest hope for people that pick up Is Love the Answer? that cis men who have experienced sex-repulsion and have toyed with the notion of asexuality… My biggest hope is that they pick this up in particular, because I think Ume offers a “light at the end of the tunnel” kind of thing of “You can have romantic attraction, have these deep, deep, fulfilling, passionate feelings. But if someone tells you or expects you to have sex, that’s not fair to you and you don’t have to force yourself to do something. Nor should you.”
And I think that’s a really powerful thing to see. Because I think, like I said, it feels in conversation with Mine-kun Is Asexual. It feels like Uta Isaki is actually kind of rectifying some of the things because, I don’t know if y’all noticed, there was definitely a character that looks like Murai. And it took me aback for a moment. I was like, “Oh! Oh, God, is she in this story?” It feels like they’re kind of rectifying this conversation they had in Mine-kun, that couldn’t be more than a doujin length, by really exploring that deeper and saying, “No, this is where I stand, and this is okay.”
And granted, Murai in Mine-kun says Mine doesn’t have a lack. He doesn’t lack for anything. And I think the same as with Ume. It’s just really reinforced and it’s great to see.
ALEX: Yeah, it feels like… I don’t know, I mean, I… You certainly see this in some writers (and I can see it in my own, looking back at my own original fiction from when I was younger) is that you hit a certain point and you say, “Oh, I’m gonna start toying with this idea of having queer characters, but I can’t put them as the protagonist. That would be overstepping the mark. I’m going to have them in as a side character, the friend or maybe a love interest,” having it function as a story where your quote-unquote “ordinary” protagonist is looking at these different characters that you’re interested in but you don’t quite feel comfortable stepping into their shoes yet.
But if you follow the work as this author develops—which, again, speaking of myself—you will start to see a delineation where you hit a certain point where you go, “No, no, no,” the queer characters start becoming the protagonists, you start engaging with that from within their shoes, you start seeing the world through that perspective and looking at the different narrative possibilities from there.
So, while Mine-kun does have some of its flaws, I don’t know. And again, I don’t want to make any assumptions about this creator. You know, they themselves say in the author’s note that they’re not sure either, and I think that’s a valid point. But it’s interesting to see… the evolution of the way they’re exploring that not-sure-ness does come with that creative shift in where their perspective lies, because, I don’t know, it’s something that, again, sort of in a meta way, resonated with me about the story, as well as the actual characters and things it contained. It’s like, oh, okay, so you had Mine-kun… Like you said, Cy, Mine-kun ran so that Chika could… could cartwheel.
ALEX: And, you know, you can have those extra [Audio cuts out] and that much more developed, much more central story about “Okay, what is asexuality actually? What does it mean?” and delving into those deeper questions from the perspective of someone that they impact much more centrally.
And yeah, it doesn’t necessarily mean that one work is better than the other. Like I said, I sort of see them in conversation and I see them as sort of unofficial sequels and prequels to one another. And as a body of work, it makes me really interested to see what the creator is going to do next and to see if we keep exploring these same ideas.
DEE: They’re definitely growing as an author, I would say, and I think they’re growing in a very positive direction.
So, I appreciated that when— When I first started reading Is Love the Answer? I was like, this is nice but it feels kind of a 101 lesson without characters, necessarily. But then the further it gets, the more it really does become a story about the characters.
And I also like how I think it pushes on more complex ideas about identity and the idea of… I think we sometimes have this idea, especially in Euro-American cultures, of people have a single fixed identity that never changes. And I think that it is important— I always hesitate to talk about… Asexuality is an orientation, not an identity, to me personally. And I understand why having it as an identity for people is very important for a lot of people.
I am personally a little… I hesitate to use the concept of identity for it because it’s an aspect, and I think that in Euro-American cultures, that idea of a fixed identity makes it difficult if you do change. And I do—I think sexuality and gender can fluctuate. I don’t think they do for everybody, but I think they can for people. And so, I have been very hesitant to ascribe labels to myself in a lot of ways because of that sense of, like, once you pick the word, that is what you must be and you live in this box now. And—
DEE: Go ahead, go ahead, Cy.
CY: I really like that you’re saying this because this is something… and to put it on a personal level, this is why, when I talked about coming out, I knew I had to do it through Anime Feminist, because I had been stuck under this label since when I started writing because that’s who I was. But I think part of what I was trying to do when I wrote that article about my name was…
We are all fluid. And things are going to fluctuate. But I think what is really important is that we’re all fluid and we all go through spectrums, nothing is static, nothing is set in stone, and it’s really good that we can fluctuate through that, because so much of what queer rights and so much of what LGBTQAI+ rights are doing is trying to really show that fluctuation is good and it is necessary for us to be able to kind of move through things, because it is hard being stuck with a label.
It’s really… it makes it very… I don’t know if I have the right word for the particular feeling I have, but being stuck with a label, being stuck with this box that you’re in, is very limiting in a very specific kind of way. And I think, yeah, it’s important to have that fluctuation. That fluctuation is necessary for being human.
DEE: Yeah. And I think Is Love the Answer? does a good job of showing how those labels can be very helpful in terms of helping you understand yourself, because, again, Chika sees the words “asexual” and “aromantic” and goes, “Oh my God, there’s words for this. I’m not an alien. This is a thing that actual humans can be.” And so, I don’t want to end this call with, like, “We should just do away with all these labels!” because I think they can be very important, and certainly that moment of going: “Asexuality, huh? Let me look into this. Huh! Well, let me think about this.”
I think Is Love the Answer? does a good job of showing how valuable that can be, but also how there are certain limitations and restrictions to that. And so, those conversations they have around, like, “We’ll just use the words that feel like they fit you the best, and it’s okay if you’re not 100% exactly on what that means, and language is kind of fuzzy anyway.”
Because Chika has a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I have a crush on an anime character. Does that mean I’m not actually ace?” and I’m like, “Mm, honey. No, you’re fine.”
ALEX: I love that!
ALEX: I love that moment so much.
DEE: I love her friend group. I love that she finds a community who’s very open and supportive of her. But one of her friends is a gay man and he’s like, “You know, I have experienced attraction towards women before, but I think of myself as gay. That is the word that fits for me.” And he’s like, “But I could see how other people might go, ‘Oh, well, that means you’re bi.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, no, that’s not how I see myself.’” And so, that idea of labels being a thing to help you to navigate the world maybe being more important than how other people understand that label, if that makes sense.
ALEX: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
DEE: It’s so personal and individualized, and I think Is Love the Answer? does a really good job with that in terms of the ace/aro spectrum because these characters all experience this in very different ways. And I really appreciated that element of it and the way it kind of addressed the linguistic difficulties, I think, because I was like, “Oh, somebody else feels this!”
Because sometimes existing on the internet, it feels like everyone’s supposed to… you know, you’re supposed to tick those checkboxes. Oh, what’s your gender? What’s your sexual orientation? What’s your romantic orientation? I’m like, “This is a lot of checkboxes! My name is Dee. Can we just have a conversation?”
ALEX: Can we talk about Pokémon? What’s up with this? [Chuckles]
DEE: Yeah. Can we talk about Pokémon or basketball or wrestling? There’s a lot of things I would rather talk about.
CY: And I think—
ALEX: Because it’s kind of— You go, Cy.
CY: Oh, I was gonna say, I think what you said about, like… Labels matter, but they also don’t. Like, they matter in the way of, like, I find comfort. I have never been more comfortable than, as I said, being a triple-A. Finding that felt very lifesaving for me.
DEE: Yes, and that’s fantastic.
CY: But also, I fully understand if someone was like, “You know what? I just vibe with the world.” Cool! I want there to be space for that because for some people the label matters; for some people they don’t.
For me, having most of my official documents have an X on them meant the world to me. But for some people, it’s just not a thing. And I think, like you said, it feels like sometimes with the internet, there’s this very specific competition that I’m losing, of, like, I don’t know all the labels to apply to me. And I think of how Gen Z has card portfolios labeling them, and I’m like, “Y’all, I’m just Black, fat, queer, and disabled. That’s all I got for you. That’s all I got for you today.” [Chuckles]
ALEX: That’s the beautiful thing about umbrella terms.
DEE: I do love the word “queer.” It’s so nice!
CY: It’s a good ‘un!
ALEX: It’s good. Yeah, I very much enjoy that, to apply to myself and to apply to all these different concepts, because… yeah, you know, I try to explain it to people as like, hey, it’s not a box you put yourself in; it’s an umbrella that you are sheltering under. It encapsulates a lot of different ideas.
And again, Is Love the Answer? is really quite revolutionary in terms of how nuanced it is as it addressed that in everything you guys both just said, so I’m not going to repeat it. Couldn’t have put it better myself!
CY: This manga feels like, to use a word that every millennial learned in college, a paradigm shift.
CY: It feels like this paradigm shift! I really hope that this opens up, in Japan, more publishers to putting out this kind of manga, to putting out these stories that are really diving into more marginalized sexual identities and gender identities and identities overall.
But I really hope that this opens the eyes of publishers in North America that are already doing the dang thing and really encourages more of this to come over, because I think it’s really important. I think it’s important to know (1) from a very Euro-influenced view that other countries are wrestling with this and having these conversations. This is not just a North American thing. We did not invent the concept of having conversations about sexuality and gender identity and all of that online. Other countries are wrestling and having their own conversations with that.
But I think it’s just really important to have these things exist in the world just as materials that people can go and see and say, “I exist and I’m in here.” I think that’s really, really important.
DEE: I 100% agree.
ALEX: I totally agree.
DEE: And Cy, you segued so perfectly into my final question, which was gonna be: what are your hopes— How fortuitous, Cy, that you did that!— What are your hopes for future representation of ace and aro characters in media?
ALEX: Just more of it, basically. Because the more we have, the less it falls on any one work to be the asexual book or the aromantic book. Variety is the spice of life. And the more different genres and different types of characters, the more we get all of those. That’ll just be a net positive for everything.
CY: Yeah, I want to see so much more because I want this to become a normal thing. I want people to be able to walk into their local Barnes and—oops—their local independent bookstore and just be able to see that and have it just feel like a very… and I use “normal” in scare quotes because normal is always a sliding scale in society.
DEE: Common. How about “common,” right? Like, it is commonplace.
CY: Yeah, like an everyday experience. Yeah, a commonplace experience. I want someone to be able to see Isekai’d in Another World as an Asexual or My Life as an Aromantic in an Otome Game!
DEE: Yeah, I mean—
CY: I want… I want…
DEE: Yeah, go ahead. Sorry.
CY: I want that. Yeah, I want that to exist. [Chuckles]
DEE: I agree with that. I definitely would like to see, I think, some more variety in terms of characters who are ace, but also, like, an ace lesbian or an aromantic gay man or what-have-you, seeing more of those layers, because I think at this point we mostly get ace-aro or we get ace characters who are… Though this was great about Mine. Mine is biromantic, which is very cool.
But we don’t necessarily see a lot of the queer overlap, and I think that would be that would be really nice to see going forward. I mean, we get it, again, in coding. There’s a lot of characters you can read as ace lesbians in anime, which is awesome. I love coding. But I would like it to be more explicitly, upfront stated. I think that would be terrific.
And the other thing, which, Cy, you touched on with your isekai thing… I like these stories like Is Love the Answer? that are these very grounded, realistic portrayals of people in the real world. Those are nice.
I like fantasy trash, and I want to see some ace characters just slaying dragons and hanging out with their buddies! Ace and aro characters, sorry.
CY: Yeah, you can’t underestimate… like, “you” as in society, right? We can’t underestimate the power of just being able to see yourself in all sorts of worlds. That’s how I feel as a Black person. I like being able to see myself slaying a dragon as a Black person. I want to see myself slaying a dragon as a triple-A.
DEE: Yeah! More triple-A’s slaying dragons. That’s our hopes for the future.
CY: Everybody can kill a dragon!
DEE: Or become best friends with the dragon. I don’t know what that dragon’s got going on.
CY: You know what? That’s a good point. [Chuckles] In Another World with My Dragon Best Friend.
DEE: I would read that. Sounds fun.
ALEX: Yeah. Very much. I actually have another paper on this if we want to link it. But genre fiction being the final frontier (pun slightly intended) of queer representation is… it’s also something I have a lot of feels about, which I won’t get into now because this is just the ace episode and we’re running out of time. But I totally agree with that, yeah. The day that we have a trashy isekai that happens to have an aro/ace protagonist, that will be a benchmark.
DEE: Yeah. Hey, trashy isekai? No slavery, please. I want to be able to enjoy this. Can we just…?
CY: Yeah. Asexuality shouldn’t be combined with slavery, for sure!
DEE: [crosstalk] Never should be combined with slavery! [Chuckles]
ALEX: Just somewhere a monkey’s paw curls and, like, “No, no, no!”
ALEX: “Not that kind of trashy isekai.” Anyway, the more that we have—
DEE: I had to add that addendum because of the anime world we live in. So… [Chuckles]
ALEX: That’s the… Yep. Oh, dear. [Chuckles] Oh, goodness.
DEE: On that note, In Another World with My Dragon Best Friend. Ending on that note.
Any other hopes, or should I play us out here?
CY: You know, I think you’re good to play us out. I’m glad that we got to do this. I hope that whoever needs to hear this, that they hear it and it maybe makes them feel more everyday than out-there and alien.
DEE: I agree with that.
ALEX: And you know, like Chika says, maybe we’re all aliens. In the darkness of outer space… I can’t remember what the line is. But basically, she’s like, “We’re all living on our own planet. And expecting everyone to be homogenous and totally the same is actually just baseless. And so, we should all celebrate what makes us individual.” And that… you know, it gives me the warm fuzzies. And that’s what I like from manga at the end of the day.
So, yeah, thanks for setting this podcast up, because it gave me the opportunity to read those two books that I would not necessarily have looked into otherwise.
DEE: They’re quite good. Yeah. I think we would—
ALEX: They’re quite good, yeah! Listeners, go check them out if you haven’t already. I know we’ve talked in depth about them but there’s plenty more to discover.
DEE: Yeah, I think we’d recommend everything we discussed. So, big ups for all of those.
CY: I will throw in that if you read Is Love the Answer? and Mine-kun Is Asexual, Uta Isaki also has additional all-ages and other manga available through Irodori, including one that is about children born on leap years that is really interesting and kind of questions what it means to be human and love, as well as one about a mermaid trapped in a bottle. And they’re all good. They’re all good. Go read their works, so we can get more in America. More in America and the world.
DEE: [crosstalk] Also, on that note, we’re talking about mangaka who have written about ace characters… Kamatani Yuhki, the writer of Our Dreams at Dusk—Hiraeth and Shonen Note are both being published at this moment. I’m halfway through the first volume of Shonen Note. I’m liking it a lot. So, you know, support ace mangaka, ace/aro mangaka, especially when they’re really good, which Kamatani is.
Okay, is it time for me to do the outro, guys?
CY: You got it!
ALEX: Think so. Let’s round it out.
DEE: [crosstalk] Let’s do it, all right.
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